"Why Not Now?" - President Ramos-Horta of East Timor Talks of Bringing Change to Burma (UNPO)


"Why Not Now?" - President Ramos-Horta of East Timor Talks of Bringing Change to Burma

The European Parliament listened this week to President Ramos-Horta's perspective on East Timor's growing international role and how he believes change could be brought to Burma with elections scheduled for November 2011

Below is an article published by UNPO:

As heads of state gather for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels, the issue of Burma and the country's forthcoming parliamentary elections on 7 November 2010 loom large.  Against this background, the European People's Party (EPP) convened a conference, 'Toward Peace and Democracy in Burma' in the European Parliament on 5 October 2010 with President José Ramos-Horta of East Timor leading discussions on how the European Union (EU) should engage with Naypyidaw.

President Ramos-Horta, speaking of the tremendous progress that had been made in expanding East Timor's infrastructure and economy, noted that this was helping a country "deeply wounded in its dignity" after decades of struggle to regain its unity and stability.  Eight years after independence, East Timor was now living by a constitutional calendar and with the help of the international community was overseeing remarkable reductions in crucial societal indicators such as poverty and child mortality, although much still remained to be done he conceded.

It was against this background that East Timor was increasingly in a position to take a leading role in promoting peace in the Asian region.  The failure of President Obama of the United States to raise the issue of Burma in the United Nations was a clear sign that small nations such as East Timor had a clear role to play in discussing international problems with greater flexibility than so-called 'Great Powers.'  That change in East Timor had come as the result of local initiatives in which "we had to create conditions on the ground" was clearly an experience relevant to Burma President Ramos-Horta noted.

Change in Burma therefore rested on the shoulders of the Burmese.  In this regard, "sanctions in general are politically correct" but in Burma, as in East Timor, they were doing more harm than good, President Ramos-Horta concluded.  Such sanctions cut off contacts to the outside world when what was needed in such cases were initiatives that could give local actors the jobs and training to bring peaceful, gradual change.

Local actors also had to assume new assertiveness President Ramos-Horta commented.  Aung San Suu Kyi was a "very pragmatic" leader but could no longer be considered the political mover she had been in previous years.  The Philippines and Indonesia should also be considered interlocutors given their experience in resolving conflict - but key to any success was to realise that "you talk, you listen, and then sometimes you understand why they do the things they do" President Ramos-Horta stated.

Joseph Daul MEP, Chair of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, had opened the conference with remarks on how he continued to "admire his [President Ramos-Horta's] effort in support of the people of Burma" and stressed that "we must all speak with one voice" on the issue of Burma.

Vice Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Ioannis Kasoulides MEP, noted that the EPP was following events in Burma closely and hoped that after the "pure masquerade" of the last Burmese elections that the military junta might allow the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi in the elections.  Reflecting on the experience of East Timor, Mr. Kasoulides noted that the country has found its way to freedom and was now fighting for the freedom of others.

Co-chair of the conference, Maria da Graça Carvalho MEP, recognised President Ramos-Horta as a "very good friend of Europe" and a national hero for the Portuguese people - who had overseen enormous progress in East Timor since its independence.  Speaking of the situation in Burma, Ms. Carvalho called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was someone to "provide an inspiration to the world" but recognised that the opposition of the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation in the UN Security Council remained a major stumbling block to a solution in Burma. 

In the following roundtable, 'Views on the Developments in Burma,' Bishop Emertus Gunnar Stålsett reiterated that local people "must own the solution" in Burma.   Burmese youth were increasingly inspired by other countries and the internet was playing a key role in this shift.  But the EU must wait until the results of the election are known, only based on this should the EU review its strategies.  There was also a need for the United Nations to convene a conference on Burma to generate new, innovative, thinking to bring change.

Director of Association Fairness International (AFI), Léon de Riedmatten believed that after the army reshuffle in Burma we "could see [the] situation differently" but presently "dialogue is not in the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] dictionary."  Focussing on the question of ethnic nationalities, Thierry Falise, AFI Field Officer, reminded those present that Burma's troubles lay in the army's failure to countenance a federal governance structure that could accommodate the country's many nationalities.  The ceasefire agreements that had been concluded with ethnic nationalities were "increasingly fragile...and detrimental" but the April 2009 border force concessions could be interpreted as a "sign of weakness from the junta."  Five decades on, the question in Burma remained one of introducing meaningful federalism.

From Burma, Ma Nilar Oo spoke of the people's "lack of ownership" in the coming elections and general lack of interest in their outcome - this was just one  indication of the daily material struggle facing Burmese people.  Privatisation had not brought benefits to the mass of Burmese citizens who faced high inflation, growing transport costs and the risk of increased levels of indebtedness.  To bring any change the United Nations remained the only organisation acceptable to the Burmese junta but "any piecemeal approach is doomed to failure."  Harn Yawnghwe, Executive Director of the Euro-Burma Office, urged those in a position to do so, to "please engage with the government of Burma" - despite their bad behaviour.  The risk remained that ethnic nationalities were being pushed to fight, a development that would negatively effect all of Burma's neighbours.  Laime Andrikienė MEP believed that privatisation offered new opportunities as Burma's generals increasingly took off their uniforms and could be found more and more in civilian roles.  The emergence of a 'strong-man' leader in the mould of General Than Shwe seemed more unlikely while the roles of India, China, and the United States remain key - China in particular was playing an enormous role in terms of economic development.  However, the EU remained the missing actor in attempts to bring democratic change to Burma.

Drawing his conclusions, Elmar Brok MEP, EPP Group Coordinator in the Committee on Foreign Affairs, spoke of his belief that "patience does not mean not to do anything" and that the EU "should make clear we do not allow them [the Burmese junta] any democratic legitimation...[or]...alibi of democracy and rule of law."  The EU had reinforced its targeted measures against the Burmese junta but it had to stand ready to respond to positive developments and to "take the Burma question in a broader concept." Mr. Brok said.  Closing the conference, co-chair Paulo Rangel MEP spoke of President Ramos-Horta's standing as "not only a friend of this house...but a friend of civic rights around the world...and of Burma"  and showed his admiration to Maria da Graça Carvalho who was "committed to this cause" of encouraging democratic change in Burma, of which the conference convened was a clear demonstration.

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President Ramos-Horta also addressed the European Parliament plenary session on Wednesday 6 October 2010 in which he stressed the support that European countries had given during East Timor's struggle for independence.  The attention of assembled deputies was also drawn to East Timor's cordial relations with Indonesia and growing network of embassies that were going to play an increasingly role as Dili hoped to continue social progress at home and encourage solutions to the effects of climate change abroad.